DS Fanboy Review: Brain Challenge

Ubisoft's Brain Challenge is an odd little game. Like their other training games that we've encountered, there's definitely a lot to love here, and that's quite an accomplishment when you consider that the brain-training genre is dominated by our beloved Dr. Kawashima and his endlessly-Photoshoppable head. But the game is far from perfect, and the problems we encountered were frustrating indeed. In the end, however, Brain Challenge just might edge out Brain Age and its sequel, though it's a close race.

But let's focus first on some of the positives. The first, glaringly obvious improvement that comes with Brain Challenge is the handwriting recognition. Calling it "incredible" may not even do the title justice; in hours of play, nary a single problem was observed, no matter how messily fours and sevens were scribbled in the rush to beat the clock. If that were the only thing Brain Challenge got right, it would be enough to give it a lasting place among training games.

But there are other improvements as well. For one thing, you can take your daily challenges more than once per day, which is certainly a nice addition. They've also added a "stress test," which is similar to the regular daily tests, but measures your stress level by adding a new spin of difficulty to the games. Various distractions, instructions, and extra challenges ramp up the difficulty of these challenges, and here, your score is measured by how well you perform under the pressure of blaring sirens or bugs blocking your screen. It must be said that, while the regular daily challenges were a great experience for me personally, and I had fun raising my score, the stress tests were an endless source of embarrassment for this reviewer. If you are also heavily pregnant, we don't recommend undergoing stress tests of any sort. Yeah, that's right ... I'm blaming it on the impending baby. Welcome to the world, little one! You are mommy's little excuse machine!

One advantage in Brain Challenge is that there are a load of mini-games. You can see a few -- as well as the category breakdowns of logic, math, memory, visual, and focus -- in our gallery, but that's hardly a drop in the bucket. In one game, you're shown various objects and combinations of objects on scales and asked to select which single object is heaviest. In another, you're faced with sets of different colored blocks and you must tap each set in order from least to most, which is more difficult than it sounds when you're against the clock. In a memory challenge, you're shown a path, which you must retrace a moment later from (you guessed it) memory. Many start off quite simply and ramp up the difficulty the deeper you get into it, and most are very fulfilling, as mini-games go.

Brain Challenge also has some interesting unlockables. Nothing spectacular, but there's a little paint program to mess around with, and a relaxing little fish pool. Neat, but nothing to write home about. Still, we're always in favor of extras, and combined with the dozens of mini-games, there's a lot here to enjoy.

So far, it all sounds so good, doesn't it? But don't let the praise fool you. Overall, yes, Brain Challenge is a real stand-out. However, it's not all peachy keen in trainingville. Nearly all of the mini-games feature very short instructions, and most don't need much. No one needs to tell you (we hope) how to perform simple mathematic calculations. But many of the games are more complicated than they seem at first, and lengthy instructions (at least the first time) would actually be helpful. With several games, I found myself unable to discern just what, exactly, I was supposed to do, or how to figure out the answer, and this is extraordinarily frustrating. With others, even if everything (seemed to be) performed perfectly, I would rate no more than a B, and with no explanation of how to improve my score. Was it time? Had I done something wrong? It's a mystery. And when the objective of a game is to improve, it helps if you know how to go about it.

Those problems, luckily, didn't crop up too often. With most of the games, it's very simple to figure out the hows and whys and wherefores. Overall? Brain Challenge is a very satisfying training title ... maybe even the best available on the DS.

The basics (or, the review is in the details):
Visuals: Brain Challenge boasts crisp, clean 3D "doctors" who guide you through the game, and you can choose between a man or a woman. Overall, the look is simple, but results and menus are well laid out.

Sound: Mostly unnecessary, very cheerful, and occasionally important to the games in question.

Story: N/A

Difficulty: This is the wildcard. Many of the games are more challenging than those found in other brain training titles, and that's mostly a good thing. However, some boast muddled or confusing instructions, and that is not. It's the game's major flaw, and while it doesn't come up that often, when it does, it really detracts from the experience.

Final Verdict: 8/10. Lots of replay value, interesting unlockables, and loads of content make up for the title's flaws.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.